Thoughts on butcher day

They came. They went. There are no pigs now.

I’ve been considering how to write this post for some time, and we decided that photos were a little beyond the tone of our blog, at least for now. You can find some excellent (and graphic) posts online regarding pig butchering, so there’s no point in me trying to poorly reinvent that wheel.

Instead, here’s some thoughts on the process from the perspective of a first-time livestock raiser.

I thought it would make me feel guilty or depressed. I really liked our pigs. We weren’t attached to them like a family pet, but they were friendly and inquisitive and cute in their own way. I liked how they would grunt loudly, almost like a bark, and charge across the pen to see if you had snacks for them. When the farm butcher truck showed up and the guy came around the barn with a rifle, I felt sad, but accepting. Our pigs had a good life. We never mistreated them, they had room to play, dirt to dig in, lots of snacks, and they died instantly. Many a gazelle being torn apart on the African plain wishes it could be so lucky. One pig stuck it’s head out of the pig hut and the guy shot it there. The second one ran a few steps out of the hut (startled by the shot) and then walked across the pen toward the guy. They both just fell down.

I thought it would make me dizzy. I’m prone to passing out from medical programs. I’ve been known to fall out of a chair from an overly detailed discussion of kidney dialysis. This was my number one fear of the butchering process, and I didn’t have any problems. Once dead, they just seemed like meat, and I have no particular problem with meat. The pigs weren’t feeling pain. They were just a big carcass that somebody was disassembling.

Things don’t go as you plan. Maybe if you butcher them yourselves you can get all the details right (maybe), but when you hire someone you are subject to their decisions as well. I’m not being critical. There are very few options for on-farm kill in our area (we weren’t going to terrify the pigs by hauling them somewhere), and the company we hired is considered the best. I just wish three things could have gone differently:

  • Late sticking. The first pig shot was the last to be stuck. Pigs are officially supposed to be stuck in less than 15 seconds (so they bleed out quickly), but I’m going to guess it took 20 second before he got to this one. I’m not sure if it will affect the meat or not.
  • Bad kill site. A few seconds after being shot, pigs begin to thrash around violently–it’s caused by randomly firing nerves as the central nervous system fails. The second pig was shot over their muck pit (read: poo) and what started as a pretty clean pink pig end up a muddy black mess after 30 seconds of rolling and twitching. Ultimately, this shouldn’t affect the meat, since it was skinned, washed, and hung neck down, but it’s certainly not the picture of grassy pastoral butchering that you like to imagine.
  • Public butcher site. I wanted them to pull the truck back by our barn, but there’s no “official” driveway there and they decided to park in the road instead. So yes, there were skinned pig carcasses hanging in the air and being gutted in the middle of the road. Thankfully, it was a Saturday so there were no school buses. We did have one neighbor jog by with a dog (she pretended not to notice), and one drove by in a pickup (she paused and stared aghast).

The butchering goes incredibly fast. They hooked the carcasses and dragged them to the edge of the road and washed them off a bit. Next, they cut off the feet and used them to prop the carcass upside down. One guy slit the skin down the stomach, and they worked each side of this cut with a sharp knife, separating the skin from the layer of fat. Then they hoisted the carcass up by the hind legs (a power winch was handy here), and peeled the skin down off the back. Next they gutted it, starting from the rear (the highest point). They caught the digestive track as it spilled out, cut it free, and discarded it. The heart was removed and saved, as was the liver (bile removed). The remaining organs and the diaphragm were removed and discarded. They washed everything out with the hose, hoisted the carcass into their freezer truck, and sprayed off the pavement. With three people working, the entire process for two pigs took about 25 minutes.

Looking forward, I think we feel more confident about doing the butchering ourselves in the future. It wasn’t an easy job, but it wasn’t awful either. We would take a lot longer, using caution to make up for our lack of skill. There are certainly advantages to home butchering: your total costs go down by half, you can control the variables better so they are thrashing on grass instead of mire, and you can save parts that are usually discarded (like the feet and certain organs).

On the other hand, when you hire someone, they are here and gone in 30 minutes, and the next time you see the pigs they are in the form of neatly wrapped little packages of meat. It’s hard to argue with the simplicity.

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31 Responses to Thoughts on butcher day

  1. Faith says:

    Of all the animals we butchered, pigs were the most… memorable. The butcher and about three of his friends would bring them to a clean place, fire the shot, then they would all jump on the pig to bleed it and hold it down until it quit moving. Looks terrifying to my young eyes.

    I agree. Farm animals are treated very well. The kill comes very quickly and, if you do it right, the animal knows no fear and never knows what’s coming.

    I wish we had a butcher like that where we are now. Now the animals are killed at the butcher shop, so they’ve already had a rough day of not understanding what is happening, and then driven through a kill chute. I don’t have animals to butcher now, but if I did I would choose the former.

    ~Faith

    • lee says:

      Wow, I’m pretty sure that’s not the standard method of butchering a pig, but it does sound like a good way for someone to break something. My impression is that you stick the pig so it starts to bleed out and then stand back. We feel pretty fortunate to have the option of these guys for butchering.

  2. Sheila Z says:

    Do you have their hanging weights yet?

    • lee says:

      Yes, they called us back the same day: 189 lbs & 231 lbs. They’re both a lot heaver than I was expecting, so either my measurements were really off, or our butcher includes the heads in the hanging weight.

  3. Buck says:

    Thanks for the detailed description Lee. It is very informative, and demystifies the process a bunch. I am glad it worked out well as well as it did. You will have to let us know how it tastes.

  4. Ron says:

    I’m glad to hear it went well. You have a real nice option with the mobile butcher. For us, it would have been an hour drive to a place that I didn’t hear real good things about, so it pushed us into doing it ourselves.

    Of course, now that you’ve seen the process and how you feel about it, you could opt to do it yourself. Personally, I find it all fascinating… the butchering process, the various cuts, sausage, smoking.

    Ron

    • lee says:

      I’m afraid if I was in your situation I simply wouldn’t have taken the plunge to start raising pigs in the first place. Now that I’ve seen the butchering once and read a lot about it, I think I could at least handle the initial butchering without messing something up too bad. There is indeed so much more to learn though.

  5. Leigh says:

    The biggest thing that keeps us from getting pigs right now is the butchering. Dan feels that if we raise pigs for meat, then we must be the ones doing the butchering. As you say, the learning of that is a slow process, so that’s a major component in our hesitation. I’d be willing to have someone else butcher them, but I’d have to convince him about that.

    • lee says:

      I agree with Dan–one of my motivating factors for moving here was eventually taking responsibility for the meat we consume. The first year we bought local and the second year we raised a pig and watched it get butchered. Next time we may be ready for the whole process. We’ll have some meat chickens to deal with this summer as another step in the process. Ultimately, we decided there was more value to us in taking smaller steps than hesitating to take one big step.

      • Leigh says:

        Very true. I think having the opportunity to watch the butchering process is extremely helpful. I know we really floundered around the first time we butchered a chicken because we’d never seen it done before. I imagine next year you’ll do quite well!

      • Jude says:

        We did our first chicken butchering recently too. We asked lots of questions of people who claimed they had done it some time in their lives. Watch youtube and actually that was the most helpful and then just jumped in and did it. We waited a bit too long, they were tasty but a bit chewy.

  6. Lynn says:

    How did Robin do with the butcher process?
    It would freak me out to see the animals thrash, whether or not I knew they were already dead – I’m the suburb girl, not a country girl. This whole farm thing is new to me, I guess. I couldn’t have watched that. Randy, on the other hand, gew up out in the country and has butchered many an animal and wouldn’t think twice about it.

    Interesting post. I, too, am curious about their weights.

    • robin says:

      I wasn’t there when the pigs were killed. I did go out to watch them get butchered a little bit later and it just seemed like meat. It was weird because I felt sad they were gone, but I wasn’t distraught. We tried very hard not to get too attached and kept it in the back of our minds that the pigs were meant for food. We had named them Baconetta but really we just called them Pig Pig. I’m not sure how I would handle the shooting, sticking, and thrashing so that was why I stayed inside. I’m not sure that I’m ready for butchering our next set of pigs by ourselves, even though Lee would like too. I still feel sad, but they had a really great life compared to most pigs, and I am going to enjoy the meat when it comes back from the butcher.

  7. It’s the butchering that makes us hesitate about pigs. We don’t have a mobile butcher and, like you (and several commenters here), we’re unwilling to have pigs spend their last day scared and disoriented en route to a slaughterhouse. We’re hoping to find someone who’s willing to show up an help us.

    When we slaughtered our turkeys (my first livestock processing), it was remarkable to me how smooth the transition from animal to meat went. As soon as it’s dead, it simply stops being the creature you knew in life, and curiosity about its anatomy and attention to the job at hand take over.

    Congratulations on successfully rearing your pigs.

    • lee says:

      Yeah, we feel fortunate to have the mobile butchers nearby. Apparently they’re doing great business despite the economy. We had a neighbor offer to help with the butchering, so perhaps someone nearby you could help as well. My concern was that if the neighbor didn’t know what he was doing, I didn’t want to mess up the butchering process of a pig that cost $250 to raise.

      That’s a good description of the transition point in the butchering process. The first time I helped someone butcher chickens, I tried to avoid seeing them get killed because I wanted to just think of them as carcasses.

      Thanks. It’s a mixture of sadness and relief that it all went so well.

  8. Good job, and great post about what can go right and wrong. Seeing it done gives you a starting point for when and if you take the plunge yourselves.

    It’s far better to know your animals and honor them by doing right than it is to buy into the industrial food system because it’s easy.

    • lee says:

      Thanks. It definitely was an eye opener! I think when we raise pigs next (2 years from now), we may be ready for the whole process.

  9. never an easy thing I am sure but I applaud you. Many people are so disconnected from their food that they might read this post and think ‘..gross..’ or ‘..I could not do this..’. Well, if you eat any meat or poultry these things happen and in my opinion if more people were willing to raise and butcher their own mean they might have second thoughts about the amount of meat they eat and eat and grow more veggies.

  10. lee says:

    Yes, my thoughts exactly. Actually, I just wrote a comment on this post with a very similar message.

    I don’t personally want to be a vegetarian, but I understand people who choose to go veggie in response to the realities of our meat industry.

  11. Jude says:

    The mobile butcher sounds great and a great way to go but I have one question, since your meat went off down the road to come back to you at some predetermined date in the near future, what guarantee do you have that it is “your pig” meat you are getting back? We are hoping to work with a friend that does the knock down and butcher for a living so we can learn to do it ourselves.

    • lee says:

      Good question! I suppose the only real confidence you have is your confidence in the butcher to not mess up. These guys are a pretty small operation, and do a limited number of animals each day. (We were either the first or second stop for the day.) When we’ve picked up meat from them before, each sack was labeled with an ID for our purchase, so I would assume that these labels start off on the initial carcases and they carry them through the cutting and curing process. Ultimately, I’m sure they could make a mistake, but I don’t see the advantage to them to intentionally mix up our animal. It’s different than taking them to a slaughter house, where they’re run through with other animals, and (from what I’ve heard) can get pulled by the “meat inspector” so you don’t even end up with the same number of animals back.

      Your situation sounds much closer to ideal. It’d be great to have someone who knows the process and can help you learn.

  12. Bruce king says:

    Regarding shooting and sticking; with a proper shot the animal will just fold at the knees and fall over. you’ve got about 10 seconds to make the stick before the thrashing starts; much safer to stick the animal quickly and then step back. 5, 10, 15, 30 seconds — not much difference as long as the heart is beating when the arteries are cut. The shot doesn’t kill the pig; it just renders it insensible.

    With respect to location, as the producer you can control that. Next time have the pigs penned in the area you’d like them to be killed when the guy shows up. I like to shoot/stick on a bed of coarse wood chips, but clean grass is good. The key issue is to have the last day be the same as every other day, so you can do that by choosing your kill area and having that be an occasional treat feeding area. Like a corner of your pen with a hog panel across it. Every week or two open the panel, toss an apple or carrot or whatever in there, and let them get used to that routine. Last day, when the farm kill guy comes, toss an apple in, close the panel behind, and you’re all set.

    For hanging weight, if you’d like to save some money, have them remove the kidneys and the caul fat and leaf lard before transport to the meat shop. Consider taking the head off as well. most of the meat on the head is in the jowls, which make really tasty bacon, and those can be trimmed off pretty easily, so you’ll get most of the value of the head without having to pay cut-and-wrap fees for the skull and brain weight.

    Leaf lard is very special stuff. Don’t discard it. Spectacular for making pie crusts and pastries and for baking in general.

    Most folks that I’ve taught slaughter to are hesistant about the initial kill (“what if I miss?”) but not so much about the field dressing (skin, gut, split). What you will have a difficult time learning by yourself is how to inspect the organs and carcass for signs of disease, parasites or infection. Stuff like abcesses are obvious, but liver flukes are not. Butchering your own animal gives you invaluable feedback about their condition, too. How much back fat? How much intermuscular? How big are the loins? You can use that information to make decisions about your husbandry.

    Finally, and generally, if you are considering hogs as part of your live-off-the-land exercise, consider feeding the hogs to a higher weight than you would normally. 100 years ago the primary value of a hog was the fat, and it is still prized worldwide. Properly done, a nice fat hog will provide all of the fat your household needs for an entire year. Lard, soap, lubricant, fat for frying, all sorts of uses.

    • lee says:

      Thanks for all the details Bruce. Your explanation of the sticking time makes me feel better. The guy definitely had a harder time getting control of the pig once it started moving. And yes, dead vs. “insensible” is a distinction I forget to make.

      I’ll remember your suggestions for picking the butchering site next time. It was not something I had considered.

      Also, I’m frustrated that we again didn’t get the leaf lard. I didn’t even remember it until they’d left. We always ask for the fat trimmings back, and we’ve rendered it down several times now. This time I expect we are going to have far more than we can use. I may have to take up soap-making. :)

      I wish it was easier to find traditional pig breeds in this area. We had hoped to get Tamworths this time, but finding some reasonably priced 15/16ths Yorkshires less than a mile from our house ended our search. Next time we raise pigs, we will be focusing on providing more of their calories using home-grown foods and forages and I suspect an old breed pig might work better in such a system. Presumably those 600 lb wild boars that make the news are eating something.

      • Jude says:

        What breed did you do? I looked but never found it mentioned? We have two Blue Butts and a Berk. The Berk will be our bacon, ham, lard pig. We have three because we are raising them with others that want real pork too but live in the city. They pay for the feed and other supplies and we do the work, then when the time come they will pay their share of the butcher. Tams and Redwattles are good. Tams are slow food pigs but very good from what we have heard.

        • lee says:

          Sorry I missed this comment for a month.

          Our pigs were 15/16ths Yorkshire. I’d love to find a couple Tamworths next time, but we have a 4-H breeder of Yorkshires just a mile from our house.

          • Carri Dawn says:

            Hi again I was looking at this post and wanted to introduce you to several heritage breeds other than Tamworth, they are extra Lean and sometimes very tough… we have Registered stock for quality purposes, I intermix them and have great results. We have Large Black, Hereford and Berkshire (all reg.) not necessary for butcher guys, we graze them all on 5 acres of grass and they are fabulous!! rooting is minimal and they actually stand and eat the tops off the grass for hours, we let them in the yard because they do this so well!
            I have been really impressed with the growthiness and hardiness of the Herefords! Good luck finding your favorite breed they are so much fun! I believe much like you they are friends, and hard to watch go but give them the best life and they will give you the best meat!

          • lee says:

            Hi Carry, thanks for the additional pig breed suggestions. I’ve been around Berkshires before, but I know very little about Herefords. I’ll be sure to look into those more when we are ready to raise pigs again. I’m very interested in breeds that will handle free range better, but we also have to weigh in practical factors like breed availability in our area and cost.

            Regarding your other comment: sorry, but we’ve decided not to approve it. While we have nothing against reasoned criticisms of our own practices, our blog is not intended as forum for criticizing other people’s farm operations.

  13. Josh says:

    Does the farm-site butcher you used have a web page we could look at? Would you mind sharing what the butchering process cost and how those costs were broken down?
    Thanks for sharing.

    • lee says:

      They don’t have a website that I could find. I’m also interested in the cost breakdown. I’m going to devote a post to all the costs (including butchering) once we get back the cured meat in a week or two. (So I know the total meat produced in lbs.) For a quick breakdown here, the butchering cost include a flat rate farm kill ($45 per animal), cut and wrap cost ($0.44/lb times hanging weight), curing ($0.45/lb times weight of hams and bacon), and a flat waste disposal fee ($5). For our large pig (231 lbs hanging weight) this worked out to $184.44. Pretty spendy.

  14. Jody says:

    To someone who has never raised an animal for food before it sounds a bit intimidating, but to me it is very fulfilling. We dignify our animals by the way we treat them. Our animals are for food. But, we make sure they are warm, healthy and happy. I love when our pigs would run out to talk to me. As I sprayed water on them and made a giant mud bath for them, they would run, jump, roll and make piggie noises. And when the mobile butchers came it was done quickly, efficiently and as humanely as possible. The guys who do it where we live are awesome! They will answer my questions and I know for sure that my pig is tagged for me. I love your journal. We’ve raised beef before and still do, but this last year was a first for pigs and chickens. We’ve made the mistakes and I enjoy reading about your journey with your critters. We’re on the same page and that is reassuring.

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